Crossing Boundaries: Androgynous Women in English Renaissance Society & Theatre

By Adrianna M.
During the English Renaissance, gender was an unstable concept. Gender categories were based on the Greek anatomist Galen’s one-sex model, which claimed that “men and women had the same anatomical structures [but that] women were simply less perfect men” (Howard “Introduction” 1595). According to the model, gender could shift depending on individual actions. In order to prevent gender shifts, English society commonly recommended strict guidelines for the masculine and feminine roles that men and women should respectively play. While both genders were affected, my work focuses specifically on women. Women were seen as property and were not to question the authority of their male “owner” (usually their father or husband). If a woman acted against these social expectations then she was considered androgynous because of how she blended physical and behavioral categories. Thus, the belief in unstable gender meant that there was no distinction between being an androgyne (person who exhibits qualities of both sexes) and a hermaphrodite (person who contains organs of both sexes).  Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 4.50.35 PM
Classical mythology depicted androgyny as a higher state of being; but in Renaissance society, androgynes were viewed more as monstrosities that threatened the desired “norm.” Female cross-dressers, as a result, were severely punished and accused “of being whores”, because not only did they change their dress but they used it to assert themselves in ways typically reserved for men (Howard “Crossdressing” 424).
In this world full of anxiety and restricting rules, “the theatre provided an arena where changing gender definitions could be displayed, deplored, or enforced and where anxieties about them could be expressed by playwrights” (Rackin 29). During the time all actors were male (since women were not supposed to speak in public), all female roles were performed by men. This created a double anxiety when it came to male actors playing female characters who cross-dressed, as in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth NightAs You Like ItThe Merchant of VeniceTwo Gentlemen of Verona, or Cymbeline. Yet androgyny could exist even when cross-dressing did not occur.  Recognition of a female characters’ androgyny “lies beneath the texture of the drama, in the male characters’ attitudes towards [them], and tends to surface when the woman attempts to assert herself, either in thought or action” (Hansen 11).
In The Merchant of Venice, for example, Portia’s and Jessica’s respective androgynous natures differ. On the one hand, Jessica’s cross-dressing hurts her father and, after she leaves (thus disobeying his authority), he cries “She is damned for it” (Shakespeare 3.1.27). She has asserted her own choice by leaving, thus becoming androgynous, and her dress while leaving reinforces this. On the other hand, Portia initially has no living paternal authority to deny. She asserts her own power in telling Bassanio to marry her, even before she cross-dresses. Not only does she assert her own authority later by cross-dressing and acting as a lawyer, but she also dominates Bassanio when he returns from Venice and she returns to her feminine costume. She tricks him into giving her his ring, but then interrogates him about it. In so doing, she dominates the relationship, symbolically taking on the masculine role regardless of her clothing. Portia’s cross-dressing saves Antonio, thus saving the play from overt tragedy, but Jessica’s transgression hurts her father. The difference we can see then is that Jessica went against her preexisting authority, while Portia had the ability to choose her authority. In Renaissance society both transgressions would be seen as monsterous, but Shakespreare makes it known that one is in fact worse than the other.
Adrianna studies Rhetoric and Writing, Literature, and Marketing at Ball State University.
Image: Larique, David. Sleeping Hermaphroditus. 1619. Greek marble. Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.  Apr. 2007. Web. 1 May 2014.
Hansen, Carol. Woman as Individual in English Renaissance Drama: A Defiance of the Masculine Code. New York: P. Lang, 1993.
Howard, Jean. ‘Introduction to As You Like It.’ Introduction. Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition.Ed.Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Maus. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. 1595.
—. “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4 (1988): 418-40.
Rackin, Phyllis. “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage.”  PMLA 102.1 (1987): 29-41.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Leah S. Marcus. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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